The 2021 Guinness Six Nations Championship will be a tournament like no other in its history.
Before a ball is passed or kicked, it is quite simply not going to be the Six Nations as anyone knows it.
The coronavirus pandemic has put paid to that, with games taking place behind closed doors as a result.
Titanic battles and age-old rivalries that would normally be settled in front of capacity crowds, will now be accompanied by eerie silences punctuated only by players’ verbal offerings and coaches shouting instructions.
Six Nations squads will be in their own protective bubbles, preparing in isolation away from the media pack familiar with thronging training bases from Dublin to Rome.
And all against a back-drop of hope that Covid-19 will not disrupt northern hemisphere rugby’s biggest event, as it has done the Heineken Champions Cup, Gallagher Premiership and Guinness PRO14 in recent weeks and months.
Rugby had a glimpse of its new environment during November and December when the Autumn Nations Cup took centre-stage.
England won it, as they did the 2020 Six Nations, which started in February and had a delayed conclusion in late October.
And it was perhaps not a coincidence that the best game – a gripping final between England and France – had the tournament’s only permitted crowd, albeit just 2,000 cheering on the teams at Twickenham.
FT [ET] ENG 22-19 FRA
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) December 6, 2020
English rugby headquarters will again be the venue for what could be the pivotal encounter of this season’s Six Nations.
England meet France on March 13, with bookmakers’ odds suggesting the title’s destiny effectively comes down to which team emerges victorious that early Saturday evening in south-west London.
It is difficult to envisage Eddie Jones’ England not putting together another full-scale assault on silverware.
Since the Australian was appointed in late 2015, England have won the Six Nations three times from five attempts, and they again look well-set.
If consistency counts for anything, then England appear a good furlong clear of the field, yet the Six Nations is rarely a one-horse race and a photo-finish cannot be discounted.
Current form guides suggest that France, enjoying a renaissance under head coach Fabien Galthie, could push England to the wire.
Galthie, whose coaching lieutenants are headed by imperious defence specialist Shaun Edwards, has steered Les Bleus out of the doldrums, with talent like Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack headlining the revival.
France beat England in their opening Six Nations game last year and took them to extra-time before seeing Nations Cup final hopes dashed just under eight weeks ago.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 24, 2021
Everything points to an Anglo-French title tussle, although Ireland could have something to say about that, given the playing personnel at head coach Andy Farrell’s disposal.
Scotland continue to progress under Gregor Townsend’s direction, but Wales and their new head coach Wayne Pivac have got it all to do following a dismal 12-month period when they won just three Tests from 10 starts.
The wooden spoon again beckons for Italy, whose opening two games are against France and England, and it will be fascinating to see what odds might be offered on a repeat of last year’s Six Nations finishing positions – England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy.